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Last updated: 5 April 2024

Is Canola Oil a Friend or Foe to Our Environment?

A vast field of blooming canola with bright yellow flowers under a clear blue sky, symbolising the debate on the environmental impact of canola oil production

Canola oil, derived from genetically modified rapeseed plants, has become a staple in kitchens worldwide due to its versatility and health benefits.

However, the cultivation and production processes pose significant challenges to soil health, water resources, and biodiversity, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. This is especially true for the refining process, which requires large quantities of water, contributing to water scarcity in some regions. Additionally, using chemical solvents like hexane in oil extraction poses risks to water quality, leading to potential environmental hazards. 

This article delves into the heart of the matter, exploring the environmental implications of canola oil production. From the vast tracts of land dedicated to canola cultivation to the intensive processing methods employed to extract the oil, we uncover the hidden costs to our planet. 

What do we mean by canola oil exactly?

Canola oil, a product of meticulous genetic modification and refining, originates from rapeseed plants engineered to contain significantly less erucic acid, a substance deemed harmful if consumed in large quantities. 

This transformation makes the oil safe for consumption and enhances its utility across various industries. 

Key characteristics of canola oil

  • Source: Extracted from the seeds of specially cultivated rapeseed plants, canola oil stands out for its low erucic acid content (less than 2%) and reduced levels of aliphatic glucosinolates in its meal (below 30 micromoles per gram).
  • Nutritional profile: Renowned for its low saturated fat and high polyunsaturated fat content, canola oil is a heart-healthy choice. It boasts a rich composition of unsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E, contributing to its benefits like softening blood vessels and supporting overall health.
  • Production and uses: The journey from seed to oil involves several steps - cleaning, heating, pressing, and refining, to name a few. Remarkably, about 44% of a canola seed's weight is oil, underscoring the efficiency of canola oil production. Beyond its culinary uses, the oil finds application in biodiesel, industrial lubricants, and even cosmetics, showcasing its versatility.

Global canola production insights:

  • Main producers: The European Union, Canada, China, India, and Australia lead canola production, highlighting its global importance as an oilseed crop.
  • Production techniques: Two primary oil extraction methods are pressing and extracting. The pre-pressing & extraction method is notably efficient, yielding 18% to 19% oil, whereas the screw oil pressing method is slightly less productive.

From its cultivation to processing, canola oil's journey to our kitchens involves several steps that raise questions about sustainability and ecological footprint.

The environmental footprint of canola oil

While efficient regarding water use and yield, the production faces environmental challenges, including significant land use, pesticide usage affecting wild bee populations, and large amounts of fertilisers and other chemicals. Most commercial canola oil extraction uses hexane, a solvent linked to toxicity and air pollution.

Yet, compared to other oil crops, it has the lowest GHG emissions per kilogram of refined oil (2.49 kg CO2 equivalent), making it an environmentally preferable choice. This can be seen against the backdrop of palm oil, notorious for its role in deforestation and biodiversity loss. In addition, conservation tillage practices in canola cultivation save 125 to 194 million litres of diesel fuel annually, further reducing the carbon footprint associated with its production.  

Remarkably, canola contributes to reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Canadian farmers sequester 11 million tonnes of GHGs annually, 70% of which are attributable to canola. This achievement is a testament to the crop's role in combating climate change. It has the lowest emissions among popular cooking oils. 

Vegetable OilGreenhouse Gas Emissions (kg CO2-eq/kg oil)Water UsageSoil Health ImpactBiodiversity Impact
Canola Oil2.49HighNegativeNegative
Palm Oil3.81 (Global Median)ModerateVery NegativeVery Negative
Olive OilLower than CanolaLowPositivePositive
Soybean Oil4.25 (Highest)HighNegativeNegative
The environmental impact of canola oil production involves several key factors, including land use, greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, and the use of pesticides and fertilisers

What is the impact of canola oil?

Apart from their land use, canola plants are water-intensive crops. The irrigation required for cultivation can lead to water scarcity in vulnerable areas, affecting local communities and ecosystems. This is in addition to the reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides in farming, which release nitrous oxide, a GHG that is about 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide over the years. 

To understand the environmental impact of canola oil, it's essential to consider its effects from various angles. Here's a breakdown:

Total impact per year

Globally, canola oil production occupies millions of hectares of land, consumes vast amounts of water, and uses significant chemical inputs. This large-scale operation contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and pollution, exacerbating climate change and environmental degradation.

Impact per day

The industry continues to exert pressure on natural resources daily. Thousands of water are used daily, and hectares of land are treated with chemicals to maintain crops, highlighting the industry's ongoing environmental toll.

Impact per usage

When used, it indirectly supports an industry with a considerable environmental footprint. From the energy consumed during processing to the transportation of the final product, canola oil's environmental impact extends beyond its cultivation.

Canola oil vs. Other vegetable oils

Canola cultivation has been credited with preserving topsoil, reducing diesel use through conservation tillage, and contributing to carbon sequestration. 

GreenMatch

When comparing canola oil to other vegetable oils, it's crucial to evaluate their environmental impact across several dimensions: land use, water consumption, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the potential for sustainable production. 

Here's a concise breakdown of these oils' environmental footprints.

Environmental impact comparison table

Vegetable OilLand Use EfficiencyWater ConsumptionGHG EmissionsSustainable Production Potential
Canola OilModerateModerateLow (2.49 kg CO2 eq/kg)Buying organic, expeller-pressed improves sustainability
Sunflower OilLowHighModerateOrganic farming reduces water and pesticide use
Palm OilHighModerateHigh due to deforestation Sustainable when cultivated without deforestation
Soybean OilModerateModerateHigh (4.25 kg CO2 eq/kg)Reduction in synthetic nitrogen fertilisers can improve sustainability
Zero Acre OilHighLowVery Low (86% fewer GHGs than soybean oil)The fermentation process requires significantly less land and water
Cottonseed OilModerateModerateLow, can reduce climate impacts by up to 83% compared to soybean oilUtilising wastewater from mills can further reduce the carbon footprint
Olive OilLowModerateModerateOrganic and sustainable practices can make it a carbon sink
Coconut OilLowHighModerateEthical brand choices are essential to ensure sustainability

Key insights:

  • Zero acre oil stands out for its minimal environmental impact. It requires 86-94% less land than traditional vegetable oils like canola, sunflower, and olive oil. It emits 86% fewer greenhouse gases than soybean oil and consumes 83% less water, making it a highly sustainable option.
  • Palm oil is the most land-efficient crop but is often linked to significant deforestation initiatives. Sustainable cultivation practices are crucial to mitigate its environmental impact.
  • While popular, sunflower oil consumes large volumes of water and has a higher emissions rating than other vegetable oils. Opting for organic sunflower oil can help alleviate some of these concerns.
  • Canola oil presents a moderate environmental footprint with low GHG emissions per kilogram of refined oil. Opting for organic, expeller-pressed canola oil can enhance its sustainability.
  • Soybean oil: Emits the highest GHGs among the compared oils (4.25 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilogram of refined oil). Its production involves extensive water and land use.

This comparison underscores the importance of considering multiple factors when assessing the environmental impact of vegetable oils. Innovations like Zero Acre Oil offer promising paths towards more sustainable cooking oil options, demonstrating that the choice of oil can significantly influence our environmental footprint.

Canola oil production in the largest economies

An infographic illustrating the multi-step process of extracting canola oil from seeds from farm to the consumer

A few key players dominate the global market. The European Union, Canada, and China are the largest producers of canola seeds, with Canada leading the world in exports. The United States, while a significant producer, still imports a substantial amount of its canola oil for domestic consumption. 

In 2022, Canada produced around 15.5 million metric tons of canola, while China produced 14.7 million metric tons. Currently, the world dedicates 20-30% of all agricultural land, between 300-425 million hectares, to vegetable oil crops - an area similar to India.

Canada is the world's leading canola exporter, with around 90% of its canola consumed in export markets. The primary destinations include the United States, Japan, and Mexico. This is seen as the steady increase in domestic canola oil consumption in the US over the past two decades. From consuming approximately 1 million metric tons in 2000, the figure more than tripled to about 2.9 million metric tons by 2022.

The global market was valued at approximately £19.8 billion in 2019, with projections indicating a slight decrease to around £18.8 billion by the end of 2026. As of 2022, the market was valued at £29.24 million and is projected to reach £50.16 million by 2032, growing at a CAGR of 5.6%. Despite this, the market is expected to grow consistently until 2030, at a CAGR of 3.5% from 2023 to 2030.

However, the price of canola oil has fluctuated, with the market influenced by weather conditions, export volumes, and global demand. As of March 2024, it had decreased by 2.50% since the beginning of the year.

The industry supports 207,000 jobs across Canada, emphasising its significance to the national economy. It also injects a staggering £22.4 billion annually into the Canadian economy due to its 8.0 million metric tons export. 

Canola oil production and exports

Country/RegionProduction (Metric Tons)Global Market Share
Canada18,694,80025%
China14,700,00010%
EU15,500,0008%
India7,800,0006%
(Data adapted from various sources, including USDA and StatCan)

Top canola-producing countries

CountryArea Harvested (ha)Yield (kg/ha)Production (MT)Global Production Share (%)
Canada8,953,3002,05520.3 million25%
China7,183,0001,90015.4 million18%
India6,900,0001,20011.7 million13%
France1,500,0003,3005.04 million5%
Germany1,340,0003,4005.25 million6%
Australia2,500,0001,7004.9 million4%
Poland900,0002,8002.31 million3%
United States579,0003,5001.833 million2%
Russia380,0003,2003.7 million4%
Ukraine1,000,0002,2003.2 million2.4
Data adapted from various sources

However, this rapid expansion of canola farming poses significant environmental concerns. Canola has a large land footprint, and its production contributes to deforestation, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, and high greenhouse gas emissions. 

A recent study found that greenhouse gas emissions from production can be as much as 2.49 kg of CO2 equivalent per kg of refined oil. 

Is canola oil toxic?

Most canola oil undergoes chemical extraction using hexane, which can compromise the oil's molecular stability, lead to rancidity, destroy beneficial omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and potentially create trans fats. Furthermore, the deodorisation stage of refining is known to produce trans-fatty acids. These aspects raise concerns about the oil's safety and health implications.

  • Hexane Extraction and Effects:

Additionally, heating canola oil negatively impacts ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) and other polyunsaturated fats essential for health. Some studies suggest that these factors may contribute to potential health risks, underscoring the importance of understanding canola oil's effects on health. 

While cold-pressed canola oil, which avoids these chemical processes, does exist, it is very expensive and difficult to find. This raises questions about the accessibility of healthier options for the general public.

Another point of contention is the use of genetic modification in canola crops. However, while it's true that a significant portion of canola crops are genetically modified, regulatory bodies have deemed GMO foods safe for consumption, and there is no direct evidence linking GMO canola oil to adverse health effects. 

Is canola oil biodegradable?

Yes, canola oil is biodegradable. Studies have consistently shown that vegetable oils, including canola oil, undergo significant biodegradation, often reaching 70-100% within 28 days under optimal conditions

The biodegradability is due to the action of microorganisms that can break down the oil into less harmful substances.

Exploring the biodegradability reveals its eco-friendly potential, particularly when considering the disposal and environmental impact of cooking oils. A study by the Water Environment Federation focused on the aerobic biodegradability of canola oil's triglyceride components, offering insights into how canola oil breaks down in the environment and the potential toxicity of its byproducts. 

Biodegradation efficiency:

  • Bacterial consortium (BS14): Identified as capable of biodegrading canola oil efficiently.
  • Degradation rates: The maximum degradation rate (\textmu max) for waste canola oil (WCO) was 0.365 min−1, and for pure canola oil (PCO), it was 0.307 min−1.
  • Biosurfactant production: During biodegradation, BS14 produced biosurfactants optimized using response surface methodology (RSM), enhancing efficiency.

Lastly, Renewable Lubricants, Inc. conducted a biodegradability test comparing RLI Bio-Hydraulic Formulations with Chevron Phillips Chemical PAO, using high oleic canola oil as a reference. This test revealed that all formulations, except PAO4, exceeded the 60% biodegradation requirement by day 28, demonstrating canola oil-based products' superior biodegradability. 

Can it be recycled?

Canola oil can be recycled, which is crucial in environmental conservation. Recycling used canola prevents it from ending up in landfills or, worse, being poured down drains where it can cause significant damage to water treatment facilities and the environment.

Instead, recycled canola oil finds new life in various beneficial applications, notably in producing biodiesel, a cleaner-burning fuel alternative to traditional fossil fuels.

The impact of canola oil Recycling

FactorImpact
Greenhouse Gas EmissionsReduces emissions by up to 80% compared to fossil fuels
Energy UseIt requires 33% less energy than refining crude oil
Economic SavingsCan save businesses up to £1000 annually in waste management costs

Recycling involves collecting the used oil, filtering it to remove impurities, and processing it into biodiesel or other products. This process not only diverts waste from landfills but also reduces greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuel production.

Is canola oil sustainable?

The sustainability of canola oil hinges on innovative agricultural practices and the industry's commitment to environmental stewardship.

The canola industry plays a crucial role in reducing greenhouse gases. Agriculture sequesters 11 million tonnes of GHGs annually, 70% of which is attributed to canola cultivation. 

For instance, early-planted, full-season canola yields more and removes more CO2 from the atmosphere. Extended crop rotations contributing to net carbon sequestration enhance this, highlighting canola's role in mitigating climate change.

The canola industry has set ambitious targets to improve environmental sustainability. Goals include decreasing the land needed to produce one tonne of canola by 40%, sequestering an additional five million tonnes of GHGs annually, and following 4R nutrient stewardship practices on 90% of canola acres. 

These practices ensure the canola industry's sustainability and economic viability, offering a model for agricultural production that balances productivity with environmental care.

Environmental Impact compared to everyday things

To understand the environmental impact of canola oil compared to everyday things, it's crucial to look at the broader picture of vegetable oil crops and their footprint. Vegetable oil crops, including canola, soybean, and palm oil, take up more land than all fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, roots, and tubers and use large land areas. 

These crops are among the top five most inefficient, requiring 3-50 times more land per kilogram than most other crops. Specifically, land used for one kilogram of vegetable oil could produce 30-50 kilograms of actual vegetables instead. Despite occupying up to 30% of global croplands, vegetable oils provide less than 0.01% of the world's important nutrients, offering the least nutrition per kilogram, comparable only to sugar. 

However, compared to other everyday items, its carbon footprint may not be as significant as one might think. We need to look at the data to understand how canola oil compares to other common items in terms of CO2 emissions.

ItemCO2 Emissions (kg CO2eq per kg)
Canola Oil2.49
Beef27.0 - 40.0
Cheese13.5
Olive Oil4.3 - 5.5
Soybean Oil4.25
Car (average petrol vehicle)2.31 per litre
Flight (per hour)90 - 195 per passenger
Daily Food Consumption (per day)4.5
*Data sourced from various environmental impact studies and reports. This figure is a median value and can differ based on agricultural practices, land use, and production methods.

Statistics, facts, and figures about canola oil

Let’s delve into the essential canola oil statistics, including its environmental impact, consumption rates, production volumes, etc., sourced from various environmental impact studies and reports. 

  • Canada leads the world in canola production, contributing over 25% to the global supply, with China (14.7 MMT) and India (7.8 MMT) following closely.
  • In 2023, China, Germany, and India were the top countries by rapeseed oil consumption, highlighting the oil's global appeal.
  • The worldwide consumption of rapeseed oil, including canola, has steadily increased. An estimated 31 million tonnes were consumed in 2015, a 7.3% increase from the previous year. 
  • CO₂ emissions from vegetable oil crops, including canola, are 5-25 times higher than most other crops, significantly contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions. 
  • Canola oil is rich in unsaturated fats, oleic acid, and alpha-linolenic acid, an essential omega-3 fatty acid, contributing to its health benefits. 
  • With a high smoke point of 468˚F, canola oil is ideal for cooking, including sautéing and deep frying. 
  • The conversion of Southeast Asian peat swamp forests to palm oil plantations, closely related to canola in the vegetable oil market, accounts for about 0.44 to 0.74 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Rapeseed oil production emits the least greenhouse gases among major vegetable oils, making it a relatively better environmental choice.
  • Approximately 45% of canola seeds contain oil, double that of soybeans, making it an efficient oil crop. 
  • In 2023, production reached 18.3 million metric tonnes (MMT).
  • The demand for canola oil in biodiesel production reached a record-high 2.9 billion pounds. 

What are alternatives?

For those seeking alternatives to canola oil due to health concerns or environmental considerations, several options stand out for their minimal impact and health benefits.

Alternatives to canola oil

  1. Olive oil: A heart-healthy option, rich in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants.
  2. Coconut oil: It offers a high smoke point and is rich in medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are beneficial for metabolism.
  3. Avocado oil: High in monounsaturated fats and has a very high smoke point, making it ideal for high-heat cooking.
  4. Grapeseed oil: A good source of vitamin E and omega-6 fatty acids, with a neutral flavour.
  5. Sunflower oil: Contains polyunsaturated fats and vitamin E, suitable for frying and baking.
Oil TypeHealth BenefitsBest Used For
Olive OilRich in antioxidants, heart-healthyDressings, sautéing
Coconut OilBoosts metabolism, high in MCTsBaking, frying
Avocado OilHigh in monounsaturated fats, high smoke pointHigh-heat cooking
Grapeseed OilGood source of vitamin E, omega-6 fatty acidsBaking, frying
Sunflower OilHigh in vitamin E, good for the skinFrying, baking
Safflower OilControls calories, combat blemishes, soothe skin textureSautéing, frying, and baking

Is canola oil better than alternatives?

Canola oil is not necessarily better than its alternatives. While it is low in saturated fat and has a high smoke point, making it a versatile cooking oil, concerns have been raised about its production process and environmental impact. Canola oil is often genetically modified and requires chemical processing.

In contrast, alternatives like olive oil and avocado oil offer similar, if not superior, health benefits without the environmental downsides. Additionally, these alternatives can provide unique flavours and nutritional profiles that canola oil lacks.

Considering the environmental impact, rapeseed (canola) oil production emits the least greenhouse gases compared to other vegetable oils, but this is only part of the sustainability equation. 

Issues such as land use, water consumption, and using pesticides and fertilisers also significantly determine an oil's overall environmental footprint. For instance, while palm oil has a low land footprint due to its high yield, its production is associated with deforestation and loss of biodiversity. 

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